USA Champs returned to Albuquerque 40 years later

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO –  Forty-four years after this city last hosted the USA Indoor National Track and Field Championships, Jesse Williams, Chaunte Howard Lowe, Bernard Lagat, Renee Metivier Baillie, Amber Campbell, A. J. Krueger, Tim Mack, Derek Miles - and a pack of others - delivered resounding “welcome back” statements on day one of the meet determining America's best.
Williams led the men’s high jump field with a clearance of 7 feet, 8 inches – rallying to win after some early misses.

“The pressure was on me,” he said. “Miss that first one at 7-7 and I might have wound up out of it. But then I cleared and the pressure was on the other guys (Dusty Jonas and Andra Manson who placed 2-3.)”

Lowe went high -  6 feet, 6 inches – to dominate the women’s high jump field. And she had a narrow miss in her first crack at 6-7.

“I really thought I was over,” she said. Actually, she was over – only to see the crossbar topple off its pegs while she sunk into the foam rubber landing pit. Princeton assistant coach Deridre Mullen was a distant second at 6-1 ¼.

Lagat and Baillie took the altitude-impaired but dramatic 3,000-meter races – in winning times that were the slowest in years at Indoor Nationals.  Albuquerque is 5,300 feet high – more than enough to slow down the best of the best endurance men and women.

Lagat (8:12.60) outsprinted Galen Rupp (8:13.49) and Chris Solinerque sky (8:13.85) in the men’s 3.000. Baillie, a former Colorado star, came down from the Rockies to build a big early lead in the women’s 3,000 but (with a 9:14.90) barely held off the late closing rushes of Sara Hall (9:14.92) and Shannon Rowbury (9:15.41.)  These were the slowest winning Nationals times in years.

Campbell and Krueger produced monster tosses in the weight throwing events.  She demolished the women’s meet record in the 20-pound event with a whirl of 81 feet, half an inch.  He muscled the men’s 35-pounder 82 feet even, a career best and tops in this meet since the still-unmatched throws of Lance Deal a decade ago.

Mack and Miles soared 18 feet, 8 ½ inches to outfly their pole vault rivals, then placed 1-2 on the misses rule.

Another most notable winner: 5,000-meter racewalker Tim Seaman.

Not only did he take the gold in 20:57.47, but this was (a) his 12th win over the 5,000-meter route; (b) his 43rd National title over all distances, a total now topped only by Hall of Fame racewalker Ron Laird, and (c) his slowest winning time in years, another one chargeable to altitude.

"My lungs were burning," he said.

And so said virtually every Indoor Nationals athlete who required two or more minutes of effort.
So much has changed since this most important – in terms of honors, medals and winning tickets to the World Championships  - of all American indoor meets last came to Albuquerque.
Now, the meet’s under the auspices of USA Track and Field, the national governing body for the sport.  It had been the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Indoor Nationals in 1966.

That  ’66 meet was staged at the Tingley Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, with running events held on a steeply-banked wooden 176-yard track (10 laps to the mile.)  But now its home (through 2012, at least, under the terms of a three-year contract) is the downtown Convention Center, equipped with a world-class, state-of-the art, artificially-surfaced (Mondo) 200-meter oval and accompanying field event facilities.

The track was originally built – at a cost of about a million and a half dollars – to host some meets in the Los Angeles area.  When those meets lost their expected sponsors, L.A. lost the track, too, and Albuquerque snapped it up.

Back in ’66, indoor track was a hot ticket item and a winter-season staple. Major meets were held through the big cities of the Northeast, Midwest and Far West on a regular schedule,  with big crowds packing the stands.

Well, they packed the stands Saturday and the meet was a sellout – but the Convention Center seats only 2,979 – a far cry from the 18,000 or so who regularly jammed Madison Square Garden and other big arenas for major meets “in the day.” 

But there’s no use living in the past, either.  This is what it is.  It’s now, it’s 2010.

The athletes – except for the distance folks - basically loved the facility.

The ”explosive events” athletes adored it most of all.

But not everything got an A-plus rating.

Some major things fell short.

The program sold for five dollars, with virtually no information about the meet in it. And a track meet, without a lot of information for everybody, is just a lot of people running around.

The announcing at the meet was by and large knowledgeable, but also (thanks to acoustics) pretty much un-understandable.  Many major media outlets paid the meet sparse - or no - attention.

Sight lines for many spectators in the Convention Center were difficult.

Some events were truly world class but others were not quite that, or far short.

Tilting the balance the opposite way was some outstanding local backing by a gung-ho Albuquerque organizing committee that drummed up heaps of pre-meet publicity and pushed relentlessly for crowd support.

All in all, this last Saturday in February was a day of days for track fans in, as every license plate here tells you,  “The Land of Enchantment.”

It had some rousing performances in the closing day of the Mountain West Conference Meet – that occupied the facility through the morning to 2 p.m. – followed by the USA Nationals, 3.30 through to early evening.

USA Nationals action wound up on Sunday with the best of America’s best in virtually all events going on to the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Doha, Qatar, March 12-14.

Once the “old” Indoor Nationals left Madison Square Garden, it’s been a case of bigger tracks and buildings, but far smaller crowds.  At such locations as the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston  and for one winter, the Armory Track Center in New York.

Almost surely, the Indoor Nationals will never return to Madison Square Garden. Or to the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds. Or any place like them.

The Convention Center era has arrived. Get with it, Nationals fans. This is “where it’s at.” Through 2012, anyway.